The new McGovern Institute for Brain Research builds on MIT researchers' already substantial contributions to the fast-growing fields of neuroscience and cognitive science. MIT's existing activities in the neurosciences include the following:
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ The Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS) combines the experimental technologies of neuroscience and psychology with the theoretical power that comes from the fields of computational neuroscience and cognitive science. The head of the department is Mriganka Sur, the Sherman Fairchild Professor of Neuroscience. Central to the BCS mission is the training of graduate students in the brain and cognitive sciences and the education of undergraduate students.
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ The Center for Learning and Memory (CLM), led by Susumu Tonegawa, winner of the 1987 Nobel Prize for his work in immunology. Research in CLM is focused on the acquisition and nature of learning and memory. By seeking out the biological origins of complex brain functions, faculty in the center hope not only to yield benefits to human health but to a deeper understanding of the nature of the human mind itself. Within the CLM is the RIKEN-MIT Neuroscience Research Center, a collaborative research venture with the RIKEN Institute of Physical and Chemical Research in Japan.
ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ï¿½ The Martinos Imaging Center will be located on the MIT campus. Biomedical imaging, a relatively young field, enables physicians and scientists to "see" and better understand tissue and organ function. It provides physicians with the ability to visualize the structure of tissues and to capture their function on film.
MIT researchers have made substantial contributions to the field of cognitive science. Representative advances and continuing studies include:
Making and breaking habits -- Professor Ann Graybiel of BCS, who studies an area deep within the brain, has uncovered clues about why good habits are so hard to make and bad habits are so hard to break. The work may help those who suffer from extreme addictions and certain brain disorders.
Genetic link to memory -- Using new genetic and multiple-cell monitoring technologies, MIT scientists demonstrated how animals form memories of places, which may directly relate to the same ability in humans. This "regional gene knockout" technology, through which scientists can develop a breed of mice in which a gene is eliminated in a specific area or only in one particular type of cell, will be valuable in the study of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer's and Huntington's. The team at the Center for Learning and Memory was headed by Professors Tonegawa and Matthew Wilson. Both hold appointments in BCS and the Department of Biology.
Humanoid robot -- Professor Rodney Brooks and colleagues at the Artificial Intelligence Lab are developing a humanoid robot named Cog that Professor Brooks believes will help us understand human intelligence. The act of creating a thinking robot forces us to ask the right questions with respect to how intelligence works, said Dr. Brooks, the Fujitsu Professor of Computer Science and Engineering and director of the AI Lab.
Human and computer vision -- Enabling computers to process visual information in much the same way that people do is the goal of Professor Edward Adelson of BCS. He is blending research in brain physiology, human perception and computer vision to learn more about how the human visual system works and how to apply those processes to digital images.
Brain plasticity -- MIT scientists have discovered that areas of the brain that process auditory information can be made to process visual information if they are stimulated with vision while the brain is developing. Such rewiring of the brain holds clues to understanding the development and plasticity of the brain, as well as fundamental operations involved in seeing and hearing, said Professor Sur, who led this research.
Where are we? -- MIT researchers found that a sugar-cube-sized piece of the brain helps prevent us from being lost in space. Scientists led by Professor Nancy Kanwisher of BCS reported that a part of the brain called the parahippocampal cortex is very active when people look at photographs of indoor or outdoor scenes, but not when they look at photos of faces or objects. She says the results are surprising "in that few scientists would have predicted that this particular process -- perceiving the layout of the local environment -- would have its own special-purpose bit of brain dedicated to it."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on March 1, 2000.